Searching for Desire on Google, Jamming, 16/03/2018

Don't necessarily take that title as a recommendation. You can probably tell what you’ll probably end up finding within a few minutes – it’s a search on the internet for content related to desire. You’ll inevitably – and sadly faster than you expect – end up with a results page full of what starts with the letter P and rhymes with ‘horn.’

For the past couple of days, I've been trying to figure out a framework for how you’d change a person’s desires – a whole culture’s desires. But I’ve mostly been talking around it.

And I’m going to keep talking around it for a while, because this is frankly a difficult topic to figure out. This is a five-ish times per week blog – I’m going to be taking a lot of passes at this.

Given the motivating example of Noble's inquiry was the awful
search results for phrases like "Black girls," I thought I'd start this
post with an image of Ava Duvernay, one of the best film
directors working in America today.
One of the other projects I’ve been working on is a policy paper for a small think tank about democratic governance and online organizing in social movements. Most of the theoretical material I already had as part of my personal library, but I grabbed some more recent articles and studies too.

There's been some recent sociological work on the feedback loops between different online platforms and the social change it’s set off. The most hype has gone to Facebook, I’d say. Its immensely detailed databases on its users’ activity drives the most powerful advertising outreach engine that’s ever existed.

Without Facebook’s platform – the peculiar and comprehensive data mining its structure makes possible – Donald Trump would probably not be President of the United States. We know this. Nothing more nefarious than his digital campaign manager Brad Parscale negotiating a really shrewd and sweet ad buy.

A much more subtle feedback loop between a web platform and society is Google Search. I got myself a copy of Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble’s look at how the psychology of racism and sexism appears in the complex internal structures of search algorithms.

It’s a book-long analysis, and I’m still going through all the examples and the basic breakdown of them that she offers. But I can see some themes emerge in my own thinking as I go through them.

Pictured is Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's digital chief for his 2016
and 2020 Presidential campaigns. Pictures also is his beard.
Search and PageRank seem to be failures of rationality. The engineers design a search algorithm that responds to the aggregate of all the queries people give it. So of course the top hits for the phrase “Black girls” are all pornographic.

Because when you aggregate all the searches of the most hideous, grotesque people out there, you end up with the dregs of humanity guiding the leading edge of search engine results. Of course you end up with the most racist, hypersexualized, stereotyped images emerging from the top hits of your search.

Humans can be wonderful, and we have a lot of potential. But a lot of us are scum. Search is going to reflect that.

In that, Search achieves its goal perfectly. It’s used the aggregation of knowledge to organize the world for us, optimized perfectly to line the bank accounts of Alphabet Inc. I mean, answer to our every desire. Yes, that’s it.

That's the epitome of rationality – you work out the optimal path to achieve a goal. But rationality falls short of real reason.

The algorithm needs an ad hoc tweak every time someone reminds Google that an image search for “doctors” brings a first page of pictures of men. There’s nothing about the algorithm that can catch itself. There’s no consciousness of the material affects and psychological or emotional effects of its results, how it expresses vile stereotypes and cruel prejudices. Why would it? It’s an algorithm.

Here’s the disaster that Google has put us all in. Our main everyday source of information has no conscience.

1 comment:

  1. The word “gimmick” can be thrown around to describe a major element of a film that changes up the ordinary tropes we’d expect from a rather straightforward flick. There is 3D, timeline splicing, animation, found footage, you name it. Some films almost even fall into these places as a genre. When they do, you get the inkling that the people responsible for thinking up the movie likely have these elements in mind at the forefront with the story as an afterthought. > Reviews Searching Only when that occurs do I call those elements gimmicky. And it’s not that a gimmick is a bad thing, but if that is what you rely on to make your story compelling, it will often become a crutch for poor storytelling or one-and-done enjoyment. Sometimes it is done right, in which case the gimmick works… but most of the time it has that negative connotation for good reason.

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